In 1916, in front of a crowd of ten to fifteen thousand cheering spectators watched as seventeen-year-old Jesse Washington, a retarded black boy, was publicly tortured, lynched, and burned on the town square of Waco, Texas. He had been accused and convicted in a kangaroo court for the rape and murder of a white woman. The city’s mayor and police chief watched Washington’s torture and murder and did nothing. Nearby, a professional photographer took pictures to sell as mementos of that day.
The stark story and gory pictures were soon printed in The Crisis, the monthly magazine of the fledgling NAACP, as part of that organization’s campaign for antilynching legislation. Even in the vast bloodbath of lynchings that washed across the South and Midwest during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Waco lynching stood out. The NAACP assigned a young white woman, Elisabeth Freeman, to travel to Waco to investigate, and report back. The evidence she gathered and gave to W. E. B. Du Bois provided grist for the efforts of the NAACP to raise national consciousness of the atrocities being committed and to raise funds to lobby antilynching legislation as well.
In the summer of 1916, three disparate forces - a vibrant, growing city bursting with optimism on the blackland prairie of Central Texas, a young woman already tempered in the frontline battles for woman’s suffrage, and a very small organization of grimly determined “progressives” in New York City - collided with each other, with consequences no one could have foreseen. They were brought together irrevocably by the prolonged torture and public murder of Jesse Washington - the atrocity that became known as the Waco Horror.
Drawing on extensive research in the national files of the NAACP, local newspapers and archives, and interviews with the descendants of participants in the events of that day, Patricia Bernstein has reconstructed the details of not only the crime but also its aftermath. She has charted the ways the story affected the development of the NAACP and especially the eventual success of its antilynching campaign. She searches for answers to the questions of how participating in such violence affected the lives of the mob leaders, the city officials who stood by passively, and the community that found itself capable of such abject behavior.
What Readers Are Saying:
“The topic is compelling and important. . . . a page-turner, indeed an often horrifying one . . . it has great potential to greatly expanding our understanding of race, racial violence, and racial politics in the early twentieth century.”--Cary D. Wintz, Texas Southern University
“Personalizing this tragedy puts a face and a name on an historic and horrific event that must not be forgotten. An important piece of historical research, well written and powerful.” --Morris Dees, Co-Founder, Southern Poverty Law Center
“Patricia Bernstein tells a tale that is long overdue, and tells it extremely well. This story is riveting, tragic, and an altogether indispensable part of American history.” --Kweisi Mfume, President and CEO, National Association for the Advancement of
“In the long record of lynching in the United States, the extralegal execution of Jesse Washington stands out. Because of the almost indescribable violence of the huge mob in Waco, the lynching became a notorious symbol of American barbarism in a purportedly modern city and age. Bernstein’s exceptionally well told account of the lynching and of the activists who exposed and denounced it ranks as one of the best accounts of a lynching ever published. Especially remarkable is her talent at tracing the terrible toll of this human tragedy on its victims, its perpetrators, and their community.” --W. Fitzhugh Brundage, William B. Umstead Professor of History, University of
“The lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916, became a cause celebre for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in its early campaign to eradicate such acts of extralegal mob violence. Historians and general readers alike should be indebted to Patricia Bernstein whose dogged research provides us with the most detailed narrative that we are ever likely to have of this unfortunate but all too common event that scarred the soul of a community and a nation in the early twentieth century.” --James M. SoRelle, professor of History, Baylor University and author of “The
“It will send shivers up your back, but it is necessary reading.” --Mexia Daily News
“For a blow-by-blow account of the events of May 15, 1916, Bernstein’s book is the place to go. She unearths hideous details, such as how children pried the teeth from Jesse Washington’s severed head and sold them on the streets. . . . But the real appeal of the book lies in the way she paints the picture of that community, with vivid portraits of local characters . . .” --Waco Tribune-Herald
“Bernstein’s book renders a vivid account of a sordid episode in Texas history.” --Texas Jewish Post
“The result focuses a strong spotlight on a dark and all-but-forgotten chapter of Texas history.” --Austin American-Statesman
“The author examines the horrific 1916 lynching and murder of a young black boy in Waco and how it influenced the NAACP’s antilynching campaign. “Especially remarkable is [Bernstein’s] talent at tracing the terrible toll of this human tragedy on its victims, its perpetrators, and their community.” --W. Fitzhugh Brundage, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill